Published in The Myanmar Times on 17 December 2012

Archbishop Charles Bo talks about the Catholic Christmas tradition and his role as a spiritual leader.

Saint Mary's Cathedral. By Ko Taik/The Myanmar Times

Saint Mary’s Cathedral. By Ko Taik/The Myanmar Times

Midnight Mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon is expected to draw about 2500 faithful. Although it is Myanmar’s largest cathedral, it will not be possible to accommodate so many people under its beautiful vaults. According to Archbishop Charles Bo of the Yangon Archdiocese, two thirds will take part in the service outside the 101-year-old cathedral, which is one of Yangon’s most iconic buildings.

The Archbishop told The Myanmar Times in an interview via email that the number of Catholics in Myanmar is steadily growing.

He said, “About 40 years ago, we had practically the same number of Catholics as in Thailand – approximately 350,000. But now there are… about 800,000, while the figure in Thailand remains the same.”

According to the Archbishop’s estimate, the CIA World Factbook’s figures are a little low: it states that Christians constitute four percent of Myanmar’s population of about 48 million, while Catholics represent 1pc.

The Archbishop said, “All [of Myanmar’s] churches are overcrowded during Christmas services. People from various ethnic groups, including Myanmar [Burman], Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Kayin, Tamil, Chinese and so forth [attend services]. They include the rich and poor alike.”

The Archbishop said that churche spend four weeks preparing for Christmas, “intensifying in prayers, services and reconciliation.”

He said that Christmas stories will be “retold and celebrated” during the Midnight Mass service, which is one of the most important times of the year for Catholics around the world.

Archbishop Charles Bo of the Yangon Archdiocese. Photo courtesy of Saint Marys Cathedral

Archbishop Charles Bo of the Yangon Archdiocese. Photo courtesy of Saint Marys Cathedral

A key part of the Roman Catholic tradition is novena, which consists of private or public prayers that are repeated for nine consecutive days before December 25.

Due to transport and security issues, Archbishop Charles Bo said that some parishes in Myanmar begin the service slightly earlier, which also provides the chance for people to attend Mass at two or three different churches.

He said another important aspect of celebrating Christmas is giving gifts, which are “shared to remind each other of God’s gift to us.”

He added that of all the Christmas decorations in homes and churches, it is the pine tree that particularly expresses that “God’s love is everlasting and fresh.”

When asked about the significance of Christmas, the Archbishop said, “To me, Christmas means that God comes to us in the person of a babe in Bethlehem, so that you and I could love Him. He is the God who shares his life with all people, especially the downtrodden, homeless and abandoned.”

He explained that young people in particular will “meet with different people and families to share the good news in the form of carol singing.”

However the Archbishop also has some concerns about the values of the young generation. He believes there are positive and negative aspects to Myanmar opening up to the outside world, both in terms of material and spiritual life.

“We were under a strict regime for over 40 years and… as the country opens up abruptly, many of our youngsters do not grasp the true meaning of ‘freedom.’ They need to be educated about [this]. With the development of [various forms of] communication, such as iPads and iPhones, and wide access to the internet, the values and sacredness of the family, the respect for parents and elders are much threatened. There are dangers for the religious and moral spheres.”

Archbishop Charles Bo of the Yangon Archdiocese. Photo courtesy of Saint Mary's Cathedral

Archbishop Charles Bo of the Yangon Archdiocese. Photo courtesy of Saint Mary’s Cathedral

Archbishop Charles Bo was born in a small, poor village called Monhla in Shwebo district, which is in the central region of Sagaing.

He said, “I am son of a farmer and my father died when I was just two years old. At the age of two I was sent to a boarding house in Mandalay and was taken care of by the Salesian Fathers.”

The Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) is a Roman Catholic religious organisation which was established in the late 19th century to care for homeless young people. It is currently the world’s third largest missionary organisation.

The Archbishop said, “I was attracted to their way of life and I became a priest in a mission in Lashio. In 1990 I became Bishop of Lashio Diocese and in 1996 I became the Bishop of Pathein.”

He was appointed as Yangon’s Archbishop by Pope John Paul II on May 24, 2003.

The Archbishop explained that Saint Mary’s Church has a nuncio, who serves as an ambassador to the Vatican and resides in Bangkok.

Across the world, the Vatican communicates through nuncios, although according to Yangon’s Archbishop, “each Catholic has the freedom to deal with the Vatican directly if need be. The directives come to all our churches via the nuncio, while on our part, we have free access to… the Vatican.”

The Archbishop explained that the appointment of Bishops is done directly by the Pope. He said that throughout Myanmar’s history, “the civil authority has never interfered with the appointment of Bishops.”

The Archbishop said that one of his most poignant experiences in the past 10 years occurred in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Photo: Jessica Mudditt

Photo: Jessica Mudditt

He said, “Everyday I have visitors. [Following] Nargis, many people came for various reasons. It was a hectic time for me. One day, a lady showed up without an appointment and I was informed that she would like to see me. Thinking that she might be asking me for some help, I asked my secretary to tell her go back. I later learnt that the lady wanted to donate some of her savings to Nargis-affected people. I was quite embarrassed and at the same time, greatly inspired by the goodwill and generosity of that lady.”

The Archbishop said that the most significant aspect of his role as Archbishop is to promote unity — “not only among Catholics, but also among different religions and people – Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.”

Another chief aim is to achieve “‘freedom’ as the people of God. This particularly means freedom from coercion, discrimination and marginalisation.”

Archbishop Charles Bo wishes to communicate a message to those who are hungry, lonely or otherwise struggling in life: “Christmas is the gift of God to man. We are a gift to one another. We share what we have with the hungry and lonely. All people of goodwill in the country are pooling their energy and resources to help each other. Christmas is a feast of hope and love and forgiveness. Above all, who inspires us? God is so great that he can become small. God is so powerful that he can make himself vulnerable and come to us as a defenseless child, so that we can love him and love each other.”

Saint Mary’s Cathedral is on the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Bogyoke Aung San roads in Kyauktada township.